Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: Swimming Can Suck Less!
Jesse Thomas shares tips, tricks and techniques to make pool time tolerable.
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It might surprise you, but the best part of my day isn’t hanging out with my wife Lauren nor my son Jude. It isn’t cresting a summit on my bike or crossing a river during my trail run. Nope, without a doubt, the best part of my day is the moment I reach up onto the deck, and pull myself out of the pool. My swim is over. Thank you, Lord Jesus.
Of course, the worst part of my day is 60–90 minutes prior to that moment, standing on the edge of the pool before I get in. Sometimes I stand for moments, sometimes for minutes, a few times for an hour or more. Once I make myself get in, I can literally feel myself get happier the closer I get to the end of my swim session. It’s like that scene in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas where the Grinch’s heart grows and his ever-present scowl slowly turns from a smirk to a massive ear-to-ear smile. That’s how I look before, during and after a swim.
But, this is triathlon. Unfortunately for many of us, the forefathers and foremothers of triathlon decided to fill that first spot with swimming and not basketball or yoyo or spreadsheets—otherwise I’d be a world champion.
And if you’re like me and the vast majority of triathletes, you don’t come from a traditional swimming background where you started so young that you don’t realize how much it sucks. Like if your parents never let you eat sugar your whole life and then when you grow up and someone gives you a cookie, you say something ridiculous like, “Oh my, that’s too sweet for me! Too much sugar. No thank you.” Seriously, who says that?
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Most of us don’t think cookies are too sweet, and so we need ways to deal with the suckiness of swimming in order to compete in triathlon. To help myself mentally and physically over the years, I’ve developed some tips, tricks and techniques to make this possible. I’ve also gotten some great ideas from my readers. Here’s a mix of the most popular and most interesting:
Swim with a good coach
Without a doubt, the number-one thing you can do to make swimming a lot better is to swim with a good coach on deck. I’ve had the honor of swimming with my coach, Matt Dixon of Purplepatch fitness, and open water guru Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26. Both make workouts more motivating, engaging, specific to triathlon and in general way, way, way more fun. In addition to making challenging, interesting, group-focused sets, coaches help you with form, pacing and other things that are hard to focus on while staring at the black line. Finding the best swim coach in your area is the best investment you can make in your swimming. Gerry has a podcast called “Triathlon Swimming with Tower 26” that I highly recommend for those looking to make triathlon swimming better, safer and more enjoyable.
Swim with a group
If you can’t find a coached group, an informal group of friends is the next best thing. I swim 2–3 times a week (basically all my “hard” sessions) with a group of buddies in Bend, Ore. It’s social and so much easier to swim hard when you’ve got Matt Lieto in a floral swimming brief in the lane next to you. You don’t want that brief in your face.
Mix up paces and distances
A lot of triathletes I know swim way too much as 2–3K straight or 5×500, where just getting in the distance is the focus. But a good change of pace or mixed interval workout keeps it fresh and more triathlon-specific. Two of my coaches’ favorites are:
11×200 on the same send off but pace is easy on 3 and 7, moderate on 2, 4, 5, 8 and 9, and hard on 1, 6, 10 and 11. If it sounds confusing, it is! It keeps your mind busy, but also replicates going out hard, settling in, having a build or chase mid swim and then finishing hard again.
8x(75, 100, 125) all on the same send off, i.e. all on 1:30. The point is lots of rest after the 75, a bit of rest after the 100, then 125 all-out with 1–3 seconds rest straight into a moderate 75. Again, practice change of pace and keep it fresh!
Do open water stuff in the pool
One of the things my coaches loves to prescribe is open water technique/practice sets in the pool. This includes exits (getting out of the pool on one end and diving back in—a heart-rate killer!), sighting and swimming 2–4 abreast in a lane doing sprints. All are great practice for the conditions you’ll actually face on race day and it keeps things interesting.
I use lots of toys in the pool to help me break up the set or replicate race day. Depending on the day or set, I swim with a pull buoy, fins, snorkel, band, paddles, ROKA Sim Shorts and my swimming buddies’ favorite, an old full-sleeved ROKA wetsuit. I have no shame. I’ll use them all at the same time if I have to! Toys help you work on specific aspects of your stroke or at the very least, just get to the end faster.
Advice from my readers
Use headphones. Lots of people suggested this. I tried it five years ago and they always worked for like 15 minutes, before the water got in them and it was more annoying than not having anything. But maybe there are some better systems out there now. I like the idea.
“The best thing I’ve found was to do duathlons … It really solved that whole ‘swimming sucks’ problem.” –Matthew Treadway
“Have a glass of wine (just one!) before getting in the pool. Really relaxes you.” –Jenna Pettinato
“I got nothing. It’s the worst.” –Brent Osborn
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Just enjoy it
OK, OK, I’ll stop my ranting for a moment and admit that there is a peacefulness to the pool that can’t be replicated on a bike or run. One of my readers, Ashley Sandborn, sums it up perfectly: “Instead of being in a bad mood about long swims, I started viewing them as moments of solitude. No noise. No distractions. Just me and my thoughts. I call it my ‘swim therapy.’ It now feels like less of a chore and more of a gift.”
No matter your approach, I hope this article helps you all be a little less Grinchy the next time you step onto the pool deck.
Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a six-time Wildflower Long Course champion, two-time Ironman champion and the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).